Gartner: Robots and sensors are in IT's future

Gartner analysts believe that most IT managers focus on technologies likely to affect their enterprises within 18 months or so -- not three years or a decade out. But that doesn't mean they're not interested in a future that, as seen by Gartner, includes sensor-rich devices and robots.

Users are also clearly interested in automation and concepts such as the "lights-out" or "humanless" data centers that Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Mark Hurd discussed at this conference.

Even if some tech ideas later turn out to be wishful thinking, a number of forthcoming technologies could have a big impact on IT, according to Gartner analyst Jackie Fenn, who spoke at an attendee-packed session at this week's Gartner IT Expo.

Fenn said he believes that many products and packages will be "smart," or connected to networks with sensors linking to supply chains that can tell how products are being used or if they have been damaged somehow. The sensors may also lead to personalized product pricing based on actual use, she said.

For instance, auto insurance companies may one day set pricing "according to actual demonstrated risk" based on driving behavior tracked by a sensor, said Fenn.

Gartner also sees increasing integration of the digital and physical worlds. There are, for example, developing technologies that can superimpose a building design over the actual building -- giving a builder or architect new insight into the structure's design.

Robotics is another area that will affect IT, said Fenn. For instance, robotic technologies are emerging in the medical field that can connect medical specialists with patients via video teleconferencing links. "How does this fit into big IT? It needs a LAN," said Fenn.

Although Gartner analysts believe most IT managers are focused on the present or near future, not all IT companies see it that way. Jeff Thompson, who works for an IT architecture and engineering for company he didn't want identified, said his firm has discussions on long-range IT development well beyond the immediate future, particularly in areas such as data mining. "We definitely look further out than 18 months. We're interested in providing the best value to our users," he said.

When Hurd spoke to attendees earlier this week, he also put on his futurist's hat and described management technologies that may lead to fully automated data centers in the years ahead. The idea isn't far-fetched. Gartner has previously predicted that as many as half of all hands-on data center jobs jobs may disappear over the next two decades because of automation.

But a vendor forecast of a fully automated data center is still hard for some IT mangers to accept.

"The notion of a lights-out data center is a wonderful concept," said Anthony Mordosky, CIO at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. But it's not a new one and he's skeptical about it. "Can you truly build a system with enough intelligence... that will understand what to do?" he asked.

Even so, the growing use of automation didn't trouble Rowan and some other IT managers, who believe most IT workers don't want purely operational jobs. "I don't think people get into IT to be in a data center at 2 a.m.," he said.

Marc Richard, an application release manager at an insurance company, said that "every time you automate something and take the human element out ... something else opens up. People move in new directions."

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Patrick Thibodeau

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